When I was a reporter and editor at the late Cleveland Press
around 1980 or so, some colleagues and I used to joke about the bone-dry
writing style at “the other paper” in town, The Plain Dealer. Our standing
claim was that all copy submitted to Plain Dealer editors was required to be
run through a “Dullatron” before it could appear in the paper. The Dullatron
was a machine that rigorously filtered out any spice or color or traces of
liveliness, any evidence of a human voice, instead spitting out the literary
equivalent of ultra-low-fat, unseasoned, flavorless, prefabbed ground chuck.
The Plain Dealer did some things better than the Press, and it, of course, had
the last laugh when the Press folded and it didn’t, but oh that was one dull
paper back then. (I have no idea what it’s like these days.)
There are, as we all know now, fundamental forces at work
reshaping the newspaper landscape and making the industry, if not melt down,
then radically reorganize itself. But if there are a dozen issues at play in
this complicated change, then one of them is surely the dullness of so many
newspapers. The lack of storytelling and strong voices is so striking (bring
back Mike Royko!); so is the lack of imagination and knowledge of literary
tools on the part of many newspaper reporters and editors. These people need to
read more fiction—which is what played the dominant role in shaping the nonfiction approach of a master feature writer like Gay Talese.
I’ve been thinking about voice a lot lately, thanks to my
new exposure to the utterly irresistible
writing of “The Sports Guy” --
ESPN sportswriter Bill Simmons – and my disenchantment with a couple of local
sportswriters where I live.
Regarding the latter duo, the problem is not with their
sports knowledge, which seems encyclopedic. One of them, who I recently heard
interviewed on a television show, is widely regarded as one of the best
football writers in the nation; the other is an expert baseball writer who I
hear regularly on local radio. What I’m struck by, though, is how funny and
amusing these reporters are on the air--and how little of this on-air
personality gets into their writing style. I want to say: Guys! It’s just a
game! Have some fun with your writing! Give us the inside goofiness. This is a
Someone who has no voice problem whatsoever is Bill Simmons,
who these days is sometimes called the most popular sports columnist in
America. He does podcasts, columnizes at ESPN.com, and is author of The Book of
Basketball, which, if you happen to know any NBA freaks, you should rush out
and buy immediately. (Serious sports fans under age 30, who seem to know his
work best, are at this point saying, “Dork, what took you so long to pick up on
Simmons? Where you’ve been, man?”)
Simmons has an astounding knowledge of sports, especially
basketball, and, despite some of his bitter criticism of the NBA, an
unquenchable love for the game. But that’s not the voice part. The voice part
is the Simmons persona: that of a zany, often hilarious, ruthlessly honest,
thoroughly irreverent, loose cannon, littering the field with profanity,
off-color jokes and pop-culture asides. And did I say fun and very instructive?
I’m halfway through his big basketball book (715 pages) and already feel like
I’ve learned more about the NBA than I would from a year’s worth of NBA beat
reporting in most newspapers.
Here’s a little flavor of Simmons, describing the young NBA
superstar LeBron James in 2006:
As LeBron took over the last few minutes in Jersey,
he made one of the most startling plays I can remember, pulled the “runaway
freight train” routine in transition and careening toward the basket as one Net
hacked him, then another Net fouled him from the other side, then a third guy
fouled him just to make sure he wouldn’t score. LeBron was cradling the ball,
taking supersize steps toward the basket and absorbing those karate chops.
BOOM-BOOM-BOOM. Any normal human being would have lost the ball or gone
tumbling to the ground. Not LeBron. He kept plowing forward like a tight end
bouncing off defensive backs. As the last guy walloped him, LeBron jumped
(where did he get the strength?), regained control of the basketball, hung in
the air, hung in the air for another split second, gathered the ball (at this
point, he was drifting under the right side of the rim) and spun a righty layup
that banked in. The shot was so freaking incredible, the referee practically
hopped in delight as he called the continuation foul. Say goodbye to the Nets--they
were done. He ripped their hearts out, MJ [Michael Jordan]-style. Unbelievable.
Absolutely unbelievable. I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t believe it. And
he’s only twenty-one.
This is how serious sports fans talk among themselves after
they’ve seen an incredible play, when their enthusiasm and love for the game
come spilling out. Why is it that we see so little of this kind of voice in our
newspaper sports sections?